Belfast Telegraph

England will be giving it everything to finish on high note, insists Southgate

By Simon Peach

Gareth Southgate has been blown away by his players' response to their semi-final devastation as focus turns to becoming the second-best England side in World Cup history.

The extra-time loss to Croatia in midweek means the Three Lions have been preparing for today's third-place play-off against Belgium in St Petersburg instead of the showpiece final against France tomorrow.

Southgate and his players are still trying to digest Wednesday's 2-1 semi-final loss, but there is little time to wallow with England having the chance to achieve the nation's best-ever finish at an overseas World Cup.

"In terms of mentality, it's been a really difficult couple of days," the England boss said. "We were 20 minutes from a World Cup final, and then in extra-time 10 minutes from a shootout to get to a World Cup final.

"The reason for us being here was to achieve that big goal. For all of the players and staff, we got back to St Petersburg at 6.30am after the game, so emotionally it has been a difficult few days.

"But I've got to say the players are incredible. They're an absolute pleasure to work with and their energy, their desire to finish the tournament well... We feel we owe it as much to ourselves as to our public. We've brought a lot of pride but we want to finish the tournament well.

"We've set a standard in how we work, a standard in the way we play and we want to aspire to that level every time we come out and every time we train.

"We want to keep those standards right to the end and the players did that in training. What we have to decide with the team is who can go again physically - it'll be important."

Southgate reported that everyone had trained yesterday, but that some of those who had featured in the semi-final may not have recovered sufficiently.

"Sometimes it's not always a good decision for people to play if their energy isn't quite there and we've got to think about who can give us the best performance," he said. "It won't be exactly the same starting XI, but we want to make as few changes as possible. We've one or two injuries, one or two with a little bit of illness, so we just have to see.

"But we have high motivation to perform. We have the chance to win a medal at a World Cup, which only one other English team has ever done.

"So there's a lot of motivation for us and of course Belgium have beaten us once already, so we'd like to redress that as well."

Kieran Trippier trained but looks a doubt after a nerve problem and cramp forced him off late in extra-time against Croatia, while Southgate did not rule out changing goalkeepers.

Perhaps the most interesting decision, though, relates to six-goal striker Harry Kane, who leads the Golden Boot race and was among eight changes when England's reserves lost 1-0 to Belgium's back-ups in the Group G finale last month.

"We have a captain whose first thought all tournament has been how far can the team go? How can he help the team to progress?" Southgate said.

"He was on board with us not playing him in the first game against Belgium. If he had a different mindset, he'd have been insisting he played in the game.

"He wanted to do what was right, so it would be even more powerful for him if he wins the Golden Boot having made that sacrifice, in my opinion."

It would be a momentous achievement for Kane, albeit scant consolation after falling short of the World Cup final.

Southgate is well aware of what an opportunity they let slip but is not worrying about whether this summer is as good as it gets.

"I'm not scared of anything," he said. "We're here to try and improve every time we play and every time we go into a tournament.

"In many respects, there were low expectations this time that relieved the pressure, but nevertheless there was still pressure to get out of the group, pressure to win their first knockout game, pressure to win the shootout.

"They coped brilliantly with all of that, so if we want to play for England you have to deal with expectation."

Despite widespread clamour for a planned celebration to welcome the Three Lions home from Russia, there will not be an open-top bus parade and their return to London this weekend will be kept as low-key as possible.

It's understood to be part of Southgate's plan to keep his England squad modest and down to earth in order to continue the positive relationship between the national side and fans.

The team are due to fly back to the United Kingdom tomorrow but even if they finish third at the tournament their return will be as small as possible.

"There is no planned celebration at this point," an FA spokesman said. "We are not actively promoting the date, the time or the airport they will return to."

That has threatened the positive relationship with the media, who feel that wider access should be laid on upon their return in order to wrap up what has been a hugely successful World Cup campaign.

Belgium will have an open-top bus parade upon their return to Brussels, with the nation reaching the last-four of the World Cup for the first time.

Prime Minister Theresa May acknowledged Southgate and his squad this week, and echoed his belief that it is important to use their time together now to build for future tournaments, starting with Euro 2020 where the final will be staged at Wembley.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister said: "She thinks he did a fantastic job and thinks the players and fans can look forward to a bright future."

Belfast Telegraph

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